This is the fourth part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.
J.W. Krutch, in a fabulous essay, “The Tragic Fallacy,” gives an explanation for why modern fiction and literature contains so much ugliness and relatively little greatness of spirit.
He says the lack of greatness in modern fiction isn’t because readers and writers are interested in the commonplace and ordinary suffering, but because as a culture, we have come to see the human soul itself as common place, and emotions as mean.
Writing great tragedy, according to Krutch, requires believing in the greatness and importance of humanity. Great art arises when “a people fully aware of the calamities of life is nevertheless serenely confident of the greatness of man, whose mighty passions and supreme fortitude are revealed when one of those calamities overtakes him.” In other words, in great art, the violence or tragic circumstances are introduced to show the nobility of the spirit which achieves its greatness through the suffering. The suffering has meaning.
Moreover, he claims that all works of art which deserve their name have a happy end. Tragedy, for Krutch, ends happily when some nobility or greatness of spirit is revealed. Juliet dies, but not before she shows the transcendent powers of love. Othello dies, but only after he fully understands the meaning of his actions.
Krutch then claims that as a culture we cannot produce great tragedy because we no longer see the human spirit as inherently noble and good.
“God is dead,” Nietzsche famously said more than a hundred years ago. More specifically, he said:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Nietzsche did not mean that God was literally dead. He meant that growing atheism meant that the belief in God could no longer serve as a moral compass or give meaning to life. He warned that growing atheism could lead to a belief that life is pointless, which in turn would lead to despair.
In past centuries, human beings believed themselves to occupy a center place in the universe. The belief that humanity has been created by a divine being in the image of that divine being similarly gives meaning to life and a belief in the greatness of the human spirit. Many blame modern science for dislodging humanity from its former position in the center of the universe.
The poets of the romantic era reinterpreted the story of Genesis, declaring that we are all born innocent, into a childhood Eden. Then, at some point in the child’s life, the child comes to understand eros and thanatos, sex and death, symbolized in Genesis by eating fruit of knowledge. God, in Genesis, said:
You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.
You have to wonder about the “you will certainly die” part because Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, but they didn’t die — at least not literally.
Something else died. But what? And why?
The romantic interpretation says that what died was their innocence. The eating of the fruit of knowledge taught them about sex and death, and after coming to understand these things, the childhood garden of Eden was destroyed.
The romantic poets saw the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory for the loss of childhood innocence each of us experiences in our lifetime. Each person, for a short time, experiences the wonders of childhood innocence before coming aware of sex and death, and being expelled from the childhood bliss of Eden.
As an aside, this interpretation of Genesis was a departure from a previous interpretation, which believed all people after Adam and Eve were born guilty, or born in sin.
Perhaps nations and cultures also have lifespans. A culture or nation can be born naive and hopeful and innocent, believing in its own greatness and invincibility and immortality. Then the nation or culture experiences trauma, sees and does evil, and loses its innocence.
I think the mid-twentieth century was a turning point for western culture, particularly American culture. I think it could be said that by the middle of the twentieth century, our own national innocence was lost.
There were certainly atrocities before 1945. There were genocides and virulent forms of slavery and institutionalized human cruelty. But when the methodical scientific methods of the Nazis and the horrors of an atomic bomb became known — when modern science was put to work to destroy millions of people in a sweep and whole cities in the blink of an eye — something changed. Combine these man-made horrors with the disappointments of the Russian Revolution and a growing atheism and a decline in the belief that the human spirit was great and central to the universe, and it seems to me American culture lost its innocence.
It makes sense, then, that people who grew up after the Holocaust, and after the dawn of the atomic age, and after humanity was dislodged from its central place in the universe, were born into a world which could not help being cynical and bitter.
It seems to me a few other things happened in the twentieth century which caused a national loss of innocence.
Since the drafting of the Constitution, there have been people who abhorred slavery an wished to see it abolished. Similarly, there have always been those who spoke out against the massacre of the native Americans. Nonetheless, for most of our history, large sections of the culture embraced the institution of slavery as morally acceptable, and embraced a belief in the manifest destiny of America to claim the entire country from the East Coast to the West Coast. But in the twentieth century, Americans were able to look back, and — as a culture — understand the evils that had been perpetuated through slavery and the massacre of the Native Americans. In other words, the country became fully aware of the evil it had committed.
A century that dawned with Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God was dead lost its cultural innocence and came to see the universe as a cold and uncaring place.
I think it could be said that in the twentieth century Americans tasted the fruit of knowledge, came to understand death and evil in a whole new nihilistic way, and a culture lost its innocence. Bitterness and despair and cynicism set in.
Perhaps this explains why so much American fiction, particularly that labeled “literary fiction” is essentially nihilistic.
I believe this series is moving toward a point, but this post, too, is getting so long I’ll have to continue next week.